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Book review: George Eliot: Whole soul by Ilana M. Blumberg

10 May 2024

Michael Wheeler reads a study of George Eliot

THE subjects chosen for Oxford’s excellent Spiritual Lives series are all “highly influential, prominent figures (typically household names) whose eminence is not primarily based on a specifically religious contribution”. This new addition, the 14th, takes its subtitle from a letter in which Mary Ann Evans expresses her frustration over delays with the publication of her translation of Strauss’s Leben Jesu, a project that never seized her imagination: “The difficulties that attend a really grand undertaking are to be borne, but things should run smoothly and fast when they are not important enough to demand the sacrifice of one’s whole soul.”

Ilana Blumberg is a Jewish American Associate Professor of English at Bar Ilan University, in Israel, whose publications include an account of sacrifice in Victorian fiction. For her, the writing career of George Eliot (Evan’s pen-name) culminates in a vision of the future in Daniel Deronda to which Eliot could give her whole soul, a future that is non-Christian: Thomas à Kempis no longer has a voice, and Eliot can no longer embody “English religious enthusiasm”.

Academic biographers, who have made their way by their brains, turn most readily to intellectual matters, as Blumberg does when addressing England’s most learned great novelist. We hear much about the novelist’s “intellectual labour” as a “freethinker” and member of the “intellectual avant-garde”. Early on in the book, we are offered a fascinating picture of Evans coming to decisions “privately and silently” over the course of her life, with results that often shocked those around her: the secession from Church, travelling abroad with the married George Henry Lewes, becoming a fiction writer under an assumed name, and marrying John Cross after Lewes’s death.

As the book unfolds, however, these “subterranean developments” are relegated to the background, as we are taken through the novels, each of which commands a separate chapter, with considerable skill, in the manner of a good literary biography.

Such a technique inevitably raises the old question of the relationship between Evans and Eliot, and particularly Eliot as narrator. Blumberg addresses the question when arguing that, in Felix Holt’s description of the world’s empirical misery, “we see something new and less faithful in George Eliot’s thought and writing,” adding that “Marian shared this dark view” in a letter of condolence after an early death. Similarly, Middlemarch offers “biographical insights”. “At this moment in her career”, Blumberg writes, “Marian Evans Lewes said much the same sort in her letters as George Eliot said in her novels.”

For much of the book, however, the focus is on the novels rather than the letters and the subterranean spiritual life of this great author. Space is rightly allotted to Marian’s early life as an Evangelical, but we do not see her pray.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and is the author of
English Fiction of the Victorian Period, 1830-1890 (Longman, 1985).

George Eliot: Whole soul
Ilana M. Blumberg
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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